The death of Senator John McCain caused me to go back and read his acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention in 2008. That convention, his nomination and the words he spoke that night in St. Paul were pretty quickly forgotten because, just a few months later, the country would make history by electing Barack Obama.
McCain’s campaign became a footnote, perhaps remembered more for his selection of Sarah Palin and some of her missteps rather than anything the Arizona Senator said on the campaign trail.
However, now with his passing and as the eulogies pour in, it is worth re-reading that speech, especially the final few graphs where he eloquently explains how a brash young Navy pilot who thought himself invincible found meaning in his life and a more full understanding of what it meant to be an American.
McCain said he was “blessed by misfortune” when he was shot down over Hanoi, captured, held prisoner and tortured. “I was blessed because I served in the company of heroes and I witnessed a thousand acts of courage, and compassion and love.”
McCain suffered two broken arms and a broken leg. His fellow prisoners fed him and kept him alive. When he turned down the North’s offer for early release the torture became even worse until they broke him.
That left him hurt and ashamed, but a fellow prisoner and friend, Bob Craner, told McCain that he had fought as hard as he could and that no man can always stand alone. Craner told McCain to “get back up and fight again for my country, and for the men I had the honor to serve with, because every day they fought for me.”
McCain said that horrible event triggered an epiphany. “I fell in love with my country when I was a prisoner in someone else’s,” he said. “I loved it not just for the many comforts of life here. I loved it for its decency, for its faith in wisdom, justice, and the goodness of its people.”
“I loved it because it was not just a place, but an idea, a cause worth fighting for,” he went on to say. “I was never the same again; I wasn’t my own man anymore; I was my country’s.”
America is a wildly diverse place. The fundamental principles of individual freedom and liberty actually guarantee that we will have strong differences about every issue under the sun. But as Thomas Jefferson said in his first inaugural address, “every difference of opinion is not a difference of principle.”
McCain issued a challenge to Americans in that speech. “My friends, if you find faults with our country, make it a better one. If you are disappointed with the mistakes of government, join its ranks and work to correct them.”
“Enlist in our Armed Forces. Become a teacher. Enter the ministry. Run for public office. Feed a hungry child. Teach an illiterate adult to read. Comfort the afflicted. Defend the rights of the oppressed.”
Falling in love with our country as McCain did is not jingoism, but rather it is a deeper understanding of the American ideal and a call to action for all of us to continue the struggle to make this a more perfect union.